On Tuesday morning, the Facebook CEO kicked off the company's annual developers conference in San Francisco with a glancing shot at Donald Trump, followed by a reiteration of the company’s oft-repeated pledge to bring the world together. Zuckerberg spoke for only 30 minutes or so and he spent many of them on what he touted as Facebook's benevolent efforts to bring universal access to information — and prosperity — to underdeveloped nations. “We are one global community," he told the crowd, invoking climate change, the Syrian refugee crisis, and touching on world events from Sierra Leone to India. All this at a developers conference, mind you.
Zuck's not alone. Last month Apple CEO Tim Cook led his keynote with a similar stump-speech vibe. He dove right into the company’s national security and privacy fight against the FBI, before addressing plans to reduce Apple’s environmental impact and detailing its efforts to advance medical research and "lay the foundation to transform care."
Two weeks ago Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told attendees of the company's annual Build developers conference of plans to "move our society forward," asking "profound questions" of his developers: "Is technology driving economic growth for everyone or is economic growth stalled in spite of technological span? Is technology empowering people or is it displacing us? Is technology helping us preserve our enduring values such as privacy, or is it compromising it?"
Google CEO Sundar Pichai hasn't delivered his big keynote yet (it’s coming up May 18), but late last year he issued an open letter in support of Muslims after Donald Trump suggested he'd blanket-ban the religious group from entering the United States. And just last month he spoke to BuzzFeed News at great length about his ambitions for Google, suggesting that "every jump in technology involves leveling the playing field.”
Welcome to 2016: where tech’s biggest leaders are no longer selling themselves as innovators, creative geniuses, or domineering tycoons, but as world leaders — statesmen shaping the course of human history. And it’s most visible during the big keynotes that today sound more like TED Talks than the product announcements and celebrations of code they began as.
While the shift in tone at tech’s big annual events has evolved somewhat subtly over the past decade, it’s still rather jarring to see how far it’s come from the obsessive product-and-design focus of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs or the aggressive, sweaty, profit-and-revenue-driven speeches of Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer era. Remember this:
If last year’s F8 keynote was about how Facebook planned to eat the internet, this year’s was about how Facebook plans to fix the world. “It takes courage to choose hope over fear,” Zuckerberg told attendees, arguing that Facebook is playing a long game with the aim of changing the world for the better by connecting people. “I hope that we have the courage to see that the path forward is to bring people together, not push them apart,” he said.
There are plenty of reasons for the global leadership rhetoric CEOs are adopting. As technology seeps deeper into our lives, the stakes become higher. In just 30 minutes Zuckerberg quickly sketched an outline of a future in which many of the things we do outside of Facebook today (TV, commerce, ordering flowers) will be done inside Facebook tomorrow. And so there’s a certain amount of reassurance in these seemingly altruistic pronouncements — regardless of the very real commercial motivations beneath them.
It's also increasingly necessary as America's big tech companies turn their focus to international expansion — where nearly all the potential for growth over the next decade lies. The U.S's Big Tech leaders are engaged in an image-shaping campaign that's meant to assuage not only the world's fears as they pertain to the tech industry, but also as they pertain to the country in which they're based. If these guys sound like ambassadors or politicians, it's because they kind of are — and the country they represent is in the middle of a chaotic and very public identity crisis.
This is especially true at a time when privacy concerns are writ large and regular people are worrying more about the amount of information, money, and power these companies have and the impact it may or may not have on their lives. Because in the end, Facebook’s internet access–beaming plane is held aloft by the advertisements the company sells against our personal information. Google, which also sells advertising against the personal information of its users, is likewise pushing hard into internet markets all over Asia and Africa. Even Apple's very principled privacy fight with the FBI is a helpful piece of marketing. Privacy, after all, is among Apple’s most important products.
This noticeable rhetorical shift may also have something to do with Big Tech’s moon shots — read: bold, futuristic projects like Hyperloops, self-driving cars, curing cancer, and virtual reality — coming home to roost. Over the last seven years, tech’s biggest players like Elon Musk, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg have allocated considerable resources toward long-term projects with the lofty goal of altering the course of human experience. These moon shots often serve as an ambitious yin (Google’s self-driving car) to a more mundane and revenue-producing yang (Google’s AdSense).
But years after their initial announcement, many of these projects are finally real. Facebook’s Oculus Rift VR headset has shipped, self-driving cars have logged many millions of miles, and while Musk’s Hyperloop is still a vision, his newest Tesla looks poised to change how we think of electric cars; meanwhile, his other company, SpaceX, just successfully landed a rocket on a boat... after it pushed a satellite into space. And so, as the innovations that were sold as world-altering become reality, there’s pressure on the executives who sold them to step up and play the part.
And it’s this idea — that Big Tech’s technology has caught up with its greatest ambitions — that makes the keynotes at these annual events so eminently watchable and, in a way, as consequential as anything happening at any political rally today here at home. After all, Facebook with its 1.6 billion users is bigger than any country on Earth. This doesn’t mean we won’t roll our eyes when Zuckerberg’s tells us it’s time to choose “hope over fear”; we will. We roll our eyes when world leaders promise to “make America great again,” too.